Is it Dedication or Delusion?

“Delusion is the seed of dreams.”
Lailah Gifty Akita

Educational reform is a never-ending process, which is, in many ways, good.  The purpose of educational institutions is to provide the best education possible.  The individual teacher learns from experience and improves over time.  Research into learning and cognition lead to better understandings of how people learn and therefor better ways to teach.

However, even with our continually improving knowledge, changes in education seem painfully slow or to not occur at all.  A consistent problem is classroom size.  While just about anyone that has studied education will agree that the best way to teach someone is with a dedicated teacher in a one on one environment (feel free to disagree I would love to hear your reasons). However, in a society that wants education especially higher education available to everyone one on one education is not possible.

Don’t believe me look at the numbers.  According to the US census bureau, there are 76.4 million students in school K through University.  That means we would need 76.4 million teachers if we paid them an average living wage including overhead each teacher would make $41,923 – $46,953 (still a little low if you ask me)  this works out to 3.2 – 3.5 trillion dollars or 17-19% of the US Gross National Product.  As a comparison, the budget for the US national government was 21% of the GDP in 2015.  Also, 76.4 million students are 24.7% of the US population, three and older, if we also had 24.7% of the US population working as teachers, then almost half of the US population would be students or teachers. Remember we would still need all the support staff, and these are with current numbers, not what we would need for everyone eligible for school.

I don’t think any country can afford to devote that much of their population and resources to one thing and survive.  As someone that loves education, I would love it if some economist out there proves me wrong.  So, class size is a compromise between what we can afford to do and the best environment for our students.

However, outside of issues that are constrained by shall we call it a reality.  We have all seen programs and projects that we think can help students get canceled.  We have all seen programs developed by grants get canceled the second the grant ends.  The loss of these programs is not only that future students will not benefit, but also the loss of resources, including time, commitment, and motivation of staff.

I have been asked after several of my programs have been canceled “how many times are you going to keep building programs that just get canceled?” It’s an interesting question and one that is not easy to answer.  I was at the University of Colorado Boulder when Carl Wieman won the 2001 Noble prize for Physics.  After winning the Nobel prize, Wieman went on to advocate for the improvement of science education.  To the extent that he was appointed the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy Associate Director of Science in 2010.  In 2013 I remembered reading an article Crusader for Better Science Teaching Finds Colleges Slow to Change that was about Dr. Weiman and his frustrations with the slow changes in higher education “… Mr. Wieman is out of the White House. Frustrated by university lobbying and distracted by a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, an aggressive cancer of the circulatory system, he resigned last summer. … “I’m not sure what I can do beyond what I’ve already done,” Mr. Wieman says.”

You can’t help but think if someone with the prestige and influence of Carl Weiman can’t encourage change what hope does anyone else have.  The truth of the matter is that how much someone can take and when they have had enough is a personal question.  When thinking about how much is enough, I can’t help but think of a humorous little fable Nasreddin and the Sultan’s Horse.  I have encountered versions of this fable many times.  I think the first time was in the science fiction book The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

Nasreddin and the Sultan’s Horse

One day, while Nasreddin was visiting the capital city, the Sultan took offense to a joke that was made at his expense. He had Nasreddin immediately arrested and imprisoned; accusing him of heresy and sedition. Nasreddin apologized to the Sultan for his joke and begged for his life; but the Sultan remained obstinate, and in his anger, sentenced Nasreddin to be beheaded the following day. When Nasreddin was brought out the next morning, he addressed the Sultan, saying “Oh Sultan, live forever! You know me to be a skilled teacher, the greatest in your kingdom. If you will but delay my sentence for one year, I will teach your favorite horse to sing.”

The Sultan did not believe that such a thing was possible, but his anger had cooled, and he was amused by the audacity of Nasreddin’s claim. “Very well,” replied the Sultan, “you will have a year. But if by the end of that year you have not taught my favorite horse to sing, then you will wish you had been beheaded today.”

That evening, Nasreddin’s friends could visit him in prison and found him in unexpected good spirits. “How can you be so happy?” they asked. “Do you really believe that you can teach the Sultan’s horse to sing?” “Of course not,” replied Nasreddin, “but I now have a year which I did not have yesterday, and much can happen in that time. The Sultan may come to repent of his anger and release me. He may die in battle or of illness, and it is traditional for a successor to pardon all prisoners upon taking office. He may be overthrown by another faction, and again, it is traditional for prisoners to be released at such a time. Or the horse may die, in which case the Sultan will be obliged to release me.”

“Finally,” said Nasreddin, “even if none of those things come to pass, perhaps the horse can sing.”

In 2017 I read an article from Inside Higher Ed Smarter Approach to Teaching Science.  The article talks about a book (Improving How Universities Teach Science: Lessons from the Science Education Initiative) written by Carl Weiman that documents the research and methods to improve science teaching in higher education.  It seems that Dr. Weiman did not give up after all, and he is back and still pushing.  Perhaps the truth is that people that try and change the monolith must be a little bit crazy if crazy is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different outcome. Then again, maybe the horse will learn to sing.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Teaching Sciences: Where Should We Start

“Chemistry ought to be not for chemists alone.”
Miguel de Unamuno

Recently a video showed up on LinkedIn.  The video was a demonstration of an Augmented Reality (AR) app The Atom Visualizer made by Machine HaloThe Atom Visualizer is the first ARCore app.  In the LinkedIn demo video, the app functions with chemistry flash cards.  The demo is not the first AR flashcards several already exist, like AR Flashcards and AR Talking Cards, to name a couple.  The Atom Visualizer is the first app to use Google’s AR framework ARCore.

While there is a lot to discuss with respects to AR and education, one person compared it to televisions and said it therefor would never work.  Another talked about problems with implementation.  However, I might talk about these issues another time.  What stood out to me as I looked over the comments were comments about chemistry and education.

S., A.
“I am glad to see something like this, but unfortunately this is sending a wrong note. For ex: Oxygen is never O, it is O2 & 2 atoms of Hydrogen combine with 1 O2 atom to form H2O Sodium as Na doesn’t react with Chlorine directly, it instead reacts with HCL (Hydrochloric acid) to form H20 & NaCl.
It would be wonderful if we teach them right things right & help humanity learn faster!!” (retrieved Aug 12, 2019, from https://www.linkedin.com/posts/ajjames_augmentedreality-ar-innovation-activity-6562906886130241536-wNCY/)

A., I.
“I would like to note that electrons are not volumetric particles (spheres) that orbit the atom nucleus, indeed they are present around the nucleus in the form of electron cloud, this is the probability of finding the electron at a certain point with respect to the atom. Additionally, the electron is a volume less particle. I would be amazed if really the correct model is shown and not some old classical physics incorrect info. This old model caused a lot of students to confuse chemistry as they go a little deeper into the subject.” (retrieved Aug 12, 2019, from https://www.linkedin.com/posts/ajjames_augmentedreality-ar-innovation-activity-6562906886130241536-wNCY/)

M., C.
“Interesting idea, but the shape of the water molecule is wrong. There are some cool (free) apps that display correct geometries though :)” (retrieved Aug 12, 2019, from https://www.linkedin.com/posts/ajjames_augmentedreality-ar-innovation-activity-6562906886130241536-wNCY/)

I would say these comments are both correct and incorrect at the same time.  After all, since the demonstration video only shows a few cool looking animations, we don’t know what the educational objective the creator of the cards was trying to achieve.  The video itself would have been much more effective presented as a 1 – 2-minute teaching lesson.  After all, perhaps the creator was trying to help people connect molecular formulas to materials H2O (water) NaCl (table salt).  In that case, the cards are not that bad.

If they are trying to teach chemical reactions, then the cards have several problems.  However, even if they are trying to explain chemical reactions should the electrons be displayed as clouds or discrete bodies.  Anyone that has a chemistry degree knows that electron clouds are the correct representation.  However, to understand electron clouds, you need to get into quantum mechanics. Leaving aside the question of whether the students have the math skills to truly delve into quantum mechanics are they ready to learn quantum mechanics.

Anyone that teaches knows we can’t learn everything all at once.  Also, successful education requires a framework to build on.  Students incorporate new information into existing knowledge.  That information needs a starting point.  One of the problems with chemistry is that we can’t directly observe a lot of the things we teach.  In cases like this, models and cartoons are a good starting point. 

Using representations, we can start building up knowledge.  The dotes make it easier for students to understand that covalent bonds are a sharing of electrons and that two atoms bound together share electrons.  Does that come across to early student if we use two or three different shaped clouds?  While an understand stoichiometry and what form elements take in the environment, they need to understand chemical bonds and the role electrons play. 

The important thing about teaching tools and models is to use them where they are appropriate. Representations like dot structure are not intended to teach students the physical structure and form of electrons. Educations is not merely the process of moving from simple to complex but also building up a framework and helping student incorporate new and more complex information. The introduction of misconceptions in STEM education is rarely because teachers present the wrong information but because the tools are misused.  

Still I wonder when and how we should start teaching quantum mechanics?

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

If We Want to Discuss Scientific Ethics, We Need to Teach Scientific Literacy

Science literacy is the artery through which the solutions of tomorrow’s problems flow.”
Neil deGrasse Tyson

Late last year a Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced that his team had created two genetically engineered human embryos that lead to the birth of two female siblings.  I wrote an article about why this shouldn’t have surprised anyone (It Might Have Happened, We Don’t Know for Sure, But Now We Freak.) While there may still be some questions, all the technology needed currently exists.

In June 2019 Russian scientist Denis Rebrikov announced that he plans to seek approval from several government agencies to perform a similar experiment to He Jiankui. It is not currently clear that human genetic engineering is legal under Russian law, or that Dr. Rebrikov will receive approval for his trial.

Beyond genetically engineering humans a few days ago (Aug 3, 2019) a report came out about the creation of a Human-Monkey chimera First Human–Monkey Chimeras Developed in China. Professor Juan Carlos Izpisúa Belmonte’s group of the Salk institute conducted the experimented in China.  According to the report, the scientists chose to perform the research in China to avoid legal issues. The same group produced a human-pig chimera in 2017.

On top of questions concerning human experimentation, there are questions about Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).  Just like debates about human genetic engineering, the discussions about GMOs are occurring after the fact.  Today more then 90% of the Hawaiian Papaya crop is Genetically modified (How GMO Technology Saved the Papaya).  Other conventional crops like corn, soybeans, and canola oil are also mostly GMO.

I could continue listing procedures that are emerging that have or will have ethical debates associated with them.  However, if we are going to have meaningful discussions, it is essential that individuals have a basic scientific understanding.  Specifically, what are the techniques scientists use and why were they chosen.  What is genetic engineering?  What is a Chimera?  What are stem cells?  Why are we interested in these techniques?  Why should we use them? 

Let’s start with the basics according to Merriam Webster

  • Genetic engineering: the group of applied techniques of genetics and biotechnology used to cut up and join together genetic material and especially DNA from one or more species of organism and to introduce the result into an organism in order to change one or more of its characteristics
  • Chimera: an individual, organ, or part consisting of tissues of diverse genetic constitution
  • Stem cells: an unspecialized cell that gives rise to differentiated cells

While a few of these definitions could lead to additional questions, what does “diverse genetic constitution” mean, I can live with them.  These definitions would be a good starting point for discussions in class.  However, a lot of today’s society is like to go to Wikipedia instead of the dictionary.

  • Genetic engineering: Genetic engineering, also called genetic modification or genetic manipulation, is the direct manipulation of an organism’s genes using biotechnology.
  • Chimera: A genetic chimerism or chimera (/kaɪˈmɪərə/ ky-MEER-ə or /kɪˈmɪərə/ kə-MEER-ə, also chimera (chimæra) is a single organism composed of cells with distinct genotypes.
  • Stem cells: Stem cells are cells that can differentiate into other types of cells, and can also divide in self-renewal to produce more of the same type of stem cells.

Fortunately for society, many of these definitions are excellent; in fact, the Wikipedia definition of Genetic Engineering and Stem cells is probably better than Merriam Webster’s definition.

So that means that GMOs are the product of Genetic Engineering. So why would you want to create GMOs?  There are lots of reasons let’s talk about Golden rice.  Golden rice is a GMO designed to combat vitamin A deficiency.  Due to starch content, white rice is a good source of calories. However, rice lacks several essential nutrients (including vitamin A).

To combat Vitamin A deficiency, scientists engineered rice to produce β-carotene, which the human body turns into vitamin A.  Scientists created Golden rice by the insertion of two genes into the rice genome.  The final product is rice, that is a golden color and provides β-carotene.  So, in the case of golden rice, the reason for genetic engineering was to combat malnutrition. Other researchers are trying to create crops that need less fertilizer or pesticides, that have better yields, or to do less damage to the soil.

There are people that no matter what the goal is will say GMOs should be outlawed.  The question, of course, is why? After all, we have been modifying our food for thousands of years.  Let’s talk about Cauliflower.  The many types of cabbage, broccoli, kale, kohlrabi, and cauliflower are all descended from the same plant. Brassica oleracea also called wild cabbage (The extraordinary diversity of Brassica oleracea).

Brassica oleracea (wild cabbage) photo by Kurt Kulac,. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.
Brassica oleracea (wild cabbage) photo by Kurt Kulac,. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license.

Over thousands of years farmers selected for traits they found desirable, leading to all the variants, many of which don’t even look like the same plant like cauliflower.

A cauliflower plant photographed by Bloemkool. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
A cauliflower plant photographed by Bloemkool. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

Research into Arabidopsis thaliana flower development by scientists using a mutagen (a chemical compound that creates changes in DNA) to create mutations.  One of these mutations produced plants that looked like cauliflower (Molecular basis of the cauliflower phenotype in Arabidopsis).  Additional research showed that the gene muted in Arabidopsis to produce the cauliflower phenotype was the same naturally occurring mutation in Brassica oleracea that was selected to produce cauliflower.

The research into plant development means that I could reproduce cauliflower in three different ways.  One, I could selectively breed Brassica oleracea to produce cauliflower.  Two, I could create mutations in Brassica oleracea using chemical mutagens and select for cauliflower.  Three, since we know the gene, I could use genetic engineering to create cauliflower from Brassica oleracea.  Most importantly done correctly, I could produce cauliflower using all three of these methods, and genetically, they would be identical.  However, even though there would be no difference between the three varieties, people would insist that the GMO cauliflower caused all kinds of problems, why?

While GMOs are already out in the wild and because of the spread of pollen, it is unlikely that society will ever put GMOs back in the box.  With several of the recent occurrences, it might also be too late for human genetic engineering, human GMOs.  Now let’s talk about Chimera’s. 

One of the primary goals for human-monkey or human-pig chimeras is the production of organs for transplant.  A common statistic is that 20 people die every day in the US waiting for a transplant. In the case of organ transplants, individuals would donate cells that scientists combine with an early pig embryo. The human cells would then give rise to the lungs, which doctors would transplant.  Currently, scientists have not produced chimeras with enough human cells to create organs that are viable for transplant.  However, it is only a matter of time until this becomes possible.  Will people wait until the first transplant occurs to talk about chimeras?

However, just as significant as the question, “will we discuss something before it happens?” Is the question of whether we are doing enough to teach science so the general society can adequately discuss the issues?  How important do you think science classes for nonmajors are?  Nonmajors class might make all the difference to the future of scientific research and medical improvements.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Increasing STEM Graduation Numbers

“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him discover it in himself.”
Galileo

For decades the United States government has told us that we need to turn out more STEM graduates.  I remember hearing in my youth the government talk about needing more science graduates; Rita Colwell had not yet coined the term STEM.

On December 18, 2012, President Barack Obama announced a plan to add 1 million more STEM graduates over the next decade (Obama White House.)  In 2018 the Committee on STEM education in their report CHARTING A COURSE FOR SUCCESS: AMERICA’S STRATEGY FOR STEM EDUCATION said, “Since 2000, the number of degrees awarded in STEM fields has increased, but labor shortages persist in certain fields requiring STEM degrees.”

Researchers have proposed that one of the biggest reasons for the lack of STEM graduates is the lack of Primary and High School STEM teachers.  Especially high school physics teachers, according to a 2011 report by the US Department of Education only about 46.7% of all high school physics class are taught by a teacher with a degree in the subject.  Furthermore, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, only 63% of US high schools offer physics.

Decades into the problem, what do we do to increase the number of people graduating with STEM degrees?  Most of the programs focus on expanding the pipeline getting more people interested in STEM careers at an earlier age.  While these types of programs are essential and vital, especially in the cases of underrepresented groups, I wonder if there might be a better way to increases STEM graduates.

Another way to increase graduation rates would be to increase STEM retention.  Even all these years later, I still remember my first core biology course as an undergraduate.  The professor taught the course in the largest lecture hall on campus; there were over 500 students in that class.  By the end of the core biology sequence, there were less than 250 students left.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics report STEM in Postsecondary Education: Entrance, Attrition, and Course taking Among 2003−04 Beginning Postsecondary Students, 27.8% of the 2003-04 starting class registered as STEM majors.  According to the same report, 51.7% of the students that started in STEM degrees graduated with a STEM degree. Also, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, the total student enrolment for fall 2003 was 16,911,481 (https://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d13/tables/dt13_303.10.asp retrieved July 27, 20019.)

Using these numbers, the 2003-04 incoming class had 4.7 million registered STEM majors.  By the 5-year graduation mark, the 2003-04 starting class had graduated 2.4 million students with STEM degrees.  Which means the 2003-04 class had lost 2.3 million STEM majors.  If the 2003-04 graduating class had graduated 73% instead of 51.7%, there would have been 1 million more graduating STEM majors.  The same number that Obama set but in half the time and without any changes to the incoming pipeline.

Beyond just increasing the overall number of STEM graduates, increased retention can help in other areas.  For example, from the 2003-04 incoming class, 14.2% of the female students that started as STEM majors left postsecondary education while 32.4% left STEM for other majors. (STEM Attrition: College Students’ Paths Into and Out of STEM Fields Statistical Analysis Report)  Conversely, 23.1% of the Hispanic students that were STEM majors left postsecondary education entirely while 26.4% left STEM majors for other fields. We see similar trends in Black students, 29.3% left higher education without a degree, and 36% left STEM for other majors.  The numbers were lower for Asian students, 9.8% left without a degree, while 22.6% changed to other majors. (STEM Attrition: College Students’ Paths Into and Out of STEM Fields Statistical Analysis Report).

Again, if we could increase the retention rate of these students by 50%, we would add a lot of Female, Hispanic, Black, and Asian STEM majors. The most significant advantage of increasing retention rates to increase the number of STEM graduates is we are already dealing with a group that has an interest in STEM.  Additionally, working on increasing retention forces us to decide if the educational goal for undergraduate students is teaching STEM or sorting STEM students.  After all, it is about time that we remember, not all STEM major wants to get a Ph.D. and become a professor.  At the undergraduate level, we should be teaching STEM students so that they can use their skills to pursue their paths. Thanks for

Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg

Your Student Can Find Supernova

“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see, and wonder about what makes the universe exist. Be curious.”
Stephen Hawking

Fifty years ago, humans first set foot on the moon.  In recognition of this, I thought I would discuss how astronomy classes can conduct real astronomy research.  As I have said in many of my posts, most current best practices in STEAM education recommend that students perform real science.

One of the arguments I have repeatedly encountered is that real science requires equipment that is too expensive for student labs.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  While scientific equipment on the cutting edge of science can be costly general improvements in technology, mean that students can use hobby grade instruments for scientific observations.

As an example, digital SLR cameras can be used to find supernova.  As a step up a simple telescope and digital camera like many schools already have can also be used.  Having the equipment fixed in a dedicated spot in a shed or dome that opens is helpful but also not necessary.  Students can also set up the equipment each night to make observations.

The basic technique to find supernova is to take lots of pictures of night sky night after night.  Then compare the images and look for a star (you’re looking at galaxies, not individual stars) that gets brighter or appears where there was not a visible star.  The biggest drawback to the discovery of supernova is simply the amount of data that the students will need.  On the website for BOSS Backyard Observatory Supernova Search under the setting up a search page they list supernova discoveries from several individuals

  • Tim Puckett (one of the largest in the world) ~1 SN every 8000 images (300+ SN)
  • Robert Evens ~ 1 SN every 4000 observations (47 SN)
  • Peter Marples ~ 1 SN per 5000 images (8 SN)
  • Me ~ 1 SN every 2800 images (57 SN)

Using these numbers as a baseline, we would find one supernova on average every 4950 images. If we assume a 15-week semester, the class would have to take 330 pictures per week.  Assuming students take one image every minute, 330 images would take 5.5 hours over one night or 2.75 hours over two nights.   With a class of 25 students, each student would need to examine 198 images or 13-14 images per week.  A better approach would be to have two students review 396 images so that two students separately review each 198-image set. All these numbers seem reasonable for a semester-long class.

Once students capture the images, students analyze the images in one of three methods.  In all methods, you compare the new images you take with a set of reference images.  You can either make your reference images.  Or download reference images from the Digitized Sky Survey (DSS). You then compare your new images to the reference images and look for differences.  The first way to do this is to compare the two images side by side and look for differences.  The second method is to blink the images. The new image is aligned and laid on top of the reference image, and the computer rapidly clicks between them. A free tool to do this is Starblinker.  The third method is automated software, but that can be expensive and is only suitable for projects that collect 1000s or more images a night (there are problems and drawbacks to automated software I will not get into). 

When your students discover a new Supernova (we will assume that if you review enough images, you will be successful.), the students can learn about submitting their discovery to Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams. A new supernova report will require the students to take additional images and measurements.

Any scientific research can be used to teach students the basics of research and observation.  The search for and discovery of supernova can be included in everything from a class for nonmajors to a dedicated research seminar.  Additionally, the students that conduct this type of research can be in almost any age group.  When we teach scientific research, it is essential to remember that science is a process and method of looking at the world, not the equipment we use.  So, get out there and find some stars that blew up.

Thanks for Listing to My Musings
The Teaching Cyborg